Main Engine Cut Off

T+48: Rand Simberg

Rand Simberg joins me to talk about his recent trip to the Space Tech Expo, the dawning of the age of in-space manufacturing, the future of SLS and Orion, the National Space Council, and a lot more.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 12 executive producers—Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Laszlo, Jamison, Guinevere, and four anonymous—and 50 other supporters on Patreon.

Air Force on Vulcan Engine Downselect

Phillip Swarts for SpaceNews:

“Once ULA makes their decision, that’s a choice that ULA makes, I’m interested in the launch service capability,” said Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, the director of space programs in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Teague declined to say whether the Air Force would cancel funding for the development of whichever engine ULA does not select, but said that the service is focused on launch services rather than engine development.

“…that’s a choice that ULA makes…”

Thoughts on XS-1

Jeff Foust, of SpaceNews, with some background on the selection of Boeing for phases 2 and 3 of the program:

Boeing will develop its “Phantom Express” vehicle for phases 2 and 3 of DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) program, which has the goal of performing 10 flights in 10 days to demonstrate responsive and low-cost launch. Phase 2 will cover development of the vehicle and ground tests though 2019, with a series of 12 to 15 test flights planned for phase 3 in 2020.

DARPA spokesman Rick Weiss said the value of the award to Boeing is $146 million. The award is structured as a public-private partnership, with Boeing also contributing to the overall cost of the program, but Boeing declined to disclose its contribution.

It’ll be powered by a single SSME, or at least a derivative of the SSME:

“As one of the world's most reliable rocket engines, the SSME is a smart choice to power the XS-1 launch vehicle,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake. “This engine has a demonstrated track record of solid performance and proven reusability.”

For the XS-1 program, Aerojet Rocketdyne is providing two engines with legacy shuttle flight experience to demonstrate reusability, a wide operating range and rapid turnarounds. These engines will be designated as AR-22 engines and will be assembled from parts that remained in both Aerojet Rocketdyne and NASA inventories from early versions of the SSME engines. Assembly and ground testing will take place at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

With a partially-reusable, flyback, two-stage-to-orbit vehicle operating today, the XS-1 concept is less impressive than it would have been a few years ago. It’ll still be interesting to follow along with, especially as someone who loves launch vehicles, but I can’t help but be a bit disappointed in the decision.

I was hopeful that the XS-1 program would be used as a good opportunity to invest in and develop new capabilities from younger players in the industry. Instead, Boeing is developing a bigger X-37B-like aircraft and putting an SSME on it.

Proactively widening the industry would do more to lower launch costs than working with Boeing on yet another project powered by an SSME-derived engine. “Boeing” and “low-cost launch” have rarely, if ever, been used in the same sentence.

I’ll also be very interested to hear what changes are being made to the SSME to encourage rapid turnaround and low maintenance.

From Foust’s SpaceNews article:

That engine represents an apparent switch in Boeing’s XS-1 concept. In phase 1 of the program, Boeing was partnered with Blue Origin, with the expectation Blue Origin would provide an engine for the spaceplane. “We selected the Aerojet Rocketdyne engine as it offers a flight proven, reusable engine to meet the DARPA mission requirements,” Sampson said.

Aside from the use of the term “flight proven,” which SpaceX gets a lot of shit for using, this may be the most curious part of the decision.

In the same way that the Air Force and NASA have a vested interest in keeping Orbital ATK around—thus prompting decisions to build new launch vehicles with crucial components built by Orbital ATK—there is a vested interest in keeping Aerojet Rocketdyne around.

It’s hard not to think that the switch to the AR-22 was prompted by two factors: AR-1 and SLS.

If and when Blue Origin’s BE-4 is selected for ULA’s Vulcan, Aerojet Rocketdyne would be effectively out of the first stage-class engine business, other than the RS-25E. They have a few more RS-68A engines to build, sure, but no new developments beyond that.

Additionally, Boeing, who is building the core stage of SLS, has a vested interest in helping Aerojet Rocketdyne get a new RS-25E production line spun up, since the existing supply of RS-25 engines will run out by SLS’ fourth flight.

In 2014, DARPA announced three phase 1 awards for initial studies of the XS-1 concepts. In addition to Boeing, DARPA provided awards to Masten Space Systems, working with XCOR Aerospace; and Northrop Grumman, working with Virgin Galactic.

It’s a bummer that Masten and XCOR lost out on this. I hope Masten continues work on Broadsword, since that could prove to be a very useful engine in the near future. And I’m not sure where this leaves XCOR. Their XR-8H21 engine is in the running for use on ULA’s ACES upper stage, but they’ve got tough competition in the RL10 and BE-3U.

Overall, I’m quite disappointed at the missed opportunity XS-1 presented to widen the industry. It’ll take a lot to convince me that a Boeing project of this sort will ever be affordable. Boeing doesn’t have the best reputation for cost-efficiency when it comes to launch vehicles—Delta IV and SLS being the two most recent examples—and their last small launch DARPA project didn’t end well.

Psyche to Launch One Year Earlier, Arrive Four Years Earlier

Thanks to a new trajectory, featuring a gravity assist from Mars, rather than Earth, Psyche will arrive in 2026 instead of 2030:

The revised trajectory is more efficient, as it eliminates the need for an Earth gravity assist, which ultimately shortens the cruise time. In addition, the new trajectory stays farther from the sun, reducing the amount of heat protection needed for the spacecraft. The trajectory will still include a Mars gravity assist in 2023.

And it’ll be sporting a different solar panel configuration:

In order to support the new mission trajectory, SSL redesigned the solar array system from a four-panel array in a straight row on either side of the spacecraft to a more powerful five-panel x-shaped design, commonly used for missions requiring more capability.

A four-year difference in arrival is a huge deal, for both the scientific timeline as well as the management of the program. This change cuts five years of fixed costs out of the budget. Hopefully that money can go to other parts of the mission to increase its capability or duration.

Chris Gebhardt on Vector’s Minimal-Infrastructure Pads

Really interesting read by Chris Gebhardt of NASASpaceFlight on Vector’s pad infrastructure—or lack thereof.

I love seeing the breadth of approaches being taken by small launch companies. Just about every entrant has a unique component to their architecture: Rocket Lab with their electric turbopumps, Virgin Orbit with air launch, Vector with mobile pad systems, to name a few.

Plenty of small launch companies will come and go, but it’s going to be fun to follow along.

Virgin Galactic, Who Has Stopped Talking About Dates, Talks About Dates

Damon Kitney, The Australian:

The maiden commercial flight of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is scheduled to take place next year but if you haven’t already paid $250,000 for the trip of a lifetime, it is likely to be at least three years before you are space-bound.

That was the view of Virgin Galactic commercial director Stephen Attenborough, who was recently brought to Australia by Deutsche Bank for a presentation at the State Library of Victoria.

Richard Branson in an interview with The Telegraph, 47 days ago:

“Well we stopped giving dates,” he confesses. “But I think I’d be very disappointed if we’re not into space with a test flight by the end of the year and I’m not into space myself next year and the progamme isn’t well underway by the end of next year.”

NASA OIG Questions Marshall Test Stands

Eric Berger, Ars Technica:

In response to the inspector general, Marshall engineers said the Stennis design was eliminated because it would have cost more. (This analysis was not documented in 2012 when the decision was made, however). The report also states that Marshall engineers could provide no documentation or analysis to back up claims that building the test stands at Stennis would have led to higher maintenance costs or design issues. "In our view, once the design that best met the SLS Program's needs was chosen, the Agency should have determined the most cost efficient location to build based on analysis of all potential locations," the report says.

Yikes. Be sure to read the whole article to really get a sense for what’s going on here.

Things people usually shout “Pork!” about are usually defensible in some way. The prime contractors for SLS are the same old insiders, the work is centralized in the same old districts, but the vehicle itself is still politically defensible as a unique capability the market does not (yet) provide.

But this situation is a pretty blatant, indefensible example of the North Alabama Space Agency.

SpaceX Improving Launch Tempo, Moving Forward on Block Upgrades

Yesterday was a great day for SpaceX, with the beautiful and seemingly-flawless launch of Inmarsat–5 Flight 4.

They hit their 2 week turnaround target between this launch and NROL–76, as they did between EchoStar 23 and SES–10 previously. (The longer gap between SES–10 and NROL–76 was due to delays on the payload side, but we’ll never get more information on that because it’s the NRO.)

They’ve got CRS–11 slated for flight in just over two weeks (with a previously-flown Dragon), then BulgariaSat–1 two weeks after that (on a previously-flown core), and something slated just about every two weeks through the rest of the year.

SpaceX’s tempo has been on target and smooth, thanks in no small part to the upgraded infrastructure at 39A. They’ve had very little work to do between flights, which otherwise would be a time and attention hog. The rebuilt infrastructure at SLC–40 will probably be very similar—except for the lack of Falcon Heavy support—which means once that pad is back online, we can expect a similar tempo from its launches.

There were two extra interesting bits from yesterday’s launch: fairing recovery work, and new fueling procedures.

Chris Bergin noticed quite a bit of extra hardware inside the fairing which points to continued testing of fairing recovery, or at least component testing for fairing recovery.

Joey Roulette‏, who was at the launch and talked to the SpaceX spokesperson, had some interesting info on later loading of LOX:

The LOX load came 10 minutes earlier at T-35, thanks to newer tech in Falcon 9 rockets. Both Helium and LOX are simultaneously loaded

He meant 10 minutes later in the count, at T–35 instead of the published T–45.

SpaceX was flying new hardware on this mission, at least in the upper stage, but maybe in both stages. It’s probably not a bad assumption to make that “newer tech” means the redesigned COPVs which will allow faster loading of LOX and helium without another Amos–6 incident.

That’s a good sign that SpaceX is progressing towards Block 5, the final version of Falcon 9. We know the currently-flying Falcon 9 vehicles are Block 3, but we have no clue what Block 4 actually contains, other than “whatever comes between 3 and 5.” There are some indications that Inmarsat–5 Flight 4 flew with a Block 3 first stage and a Block 4 upper stage.

Interestingly, Joey Roulette had some info on the next flights in this regard:

The next two launches, #CRS11 and #BulgariaSat, will be the last two without this improved loading system.

They wouldn’t be this sure about switching to the new hardware within a month if this was a test to make sure everything worked as designed before committing to the changes. It seems like an intentional decision to skip CRS–11—which makes sense given that NASA prefers to fly on hardware that has flown 3 times previously—and BulgariaSat–1.

BulgariaSat–1 makes less sense to skip if these really are only changes to the upper stage, but makes more sense to skip if the entire vehicle is moving to Block 4.

My assessment: a Block 4 upper stage was flown on Inmarsat–5 Flight 4 because they wanted every bit of performance they could get for such a heavy payload. That lets them get a flight of Block 4 hardware under their belt, and move forward with confidence to Block 4 vehicles after BulgariaSat–1.

T+47: Uncrewed EM-1 Delayed to 2019

Last week was rough for the Space Launch System. An issue with weld tooling was discovered, with some serious consequences, and then a LOX tank dome was dropped and damaged beyond repair. To top it off, NASA announced that EM-1 will fly without crew, and is delayed until 2019.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 12 executive producers—Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Laszlo, Jamison, Guinevere, and four anonymous—and 46 other supporters on Patreon.

Blue Origin Loses BE-4 Powerpack

We lost a set of powerpack test hardware on one of our BE-4 test stands yesterday. Not unusual during development.

Curious that the ultra-secretive Blue Origin said anything about this at all. Getting out in front of it is better than letting news of a test stand failure leak out. I doubt we’ll get any other details on it, but there are a lot of questions here.

It’s always a bummer to lose hardware, but they were headed into BE-4 testing with two stands and three engines, so that certainly makes the loss easier. We heard from ULA’s Tory Bruno back at the Space Symposium that full scale powerpack and preburner tests were going well, so let’s hope the issue can be identified and resolved quickly.